‘Simple chaos’: Halifax man learns he went home as officials warn of wildfire danger

HALIFAX — For the second time in the last seven years, Danny Osborne has fled his home due to a wildfire.

In May 2016, he escaped the devastating fires in Fort McMurray, Alta., which forced the evacuation of 90,000 people and destroyed 2,400 homes and businesses. But her Alberta home survived the disaster.

But on Tuesday, Osborne learned that the Halifax-area wildfire that had been burning since Sunday had engulfed his new residence in Nova Scotia.

He was among a group from the Yankeetown subdivision northwest of Halifax that was directed by RCMP to see what was left of their property after the wildfire swept through.

“He’s gone,” the 45-year-old construction worker said after returning from seeing his home vandalized. “He’s completely crushed.”

Osborne recalled how when he left his home after an evacuation was ordered, he saw black, swirling smoke in his rearview mirror and felt the same “heartbreaking” emotions he endured during the Alberta disaster.

“It’s just chaos, and it’s happening all over the country,” the father of two said, his voice flat and weary. “This time, I think he was a bit calmer since I’ve passed him before. But it was still very, very scary. This is the second time I have taken my caravan out of a forest fire to live in it.”

Earlier in the day, fire officials said that with the return of dry and windy conditions, there could be a “re-fire” in the evacuated subdivisions, which stretch over 100 square kilometers.

“We expect a significant level of fire behavior,” David Steeves, a forest resources technician with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, told reporters at a command post in Upper Tantallon, NS.

Once in #Alberta and now in Nova Scotia, Danny Osborne has fled his home due to a #fire. #fires #climatechange

“It’s going to be an increasingly dangerous situation for the firefighters that are on the ground.”

Halifax Deputy Fire Chief David Meldrum said firefighters had spent the night extinguishing hot spots in neighborhoods where 200 homes and structures have been damaged since the blaze started. It is not clear how many houses have been destroyed because surveys have not yet been completed.

In all, some 16,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes in the Halifax area, most of whom are a 30-minute drive from the center of the port city.

Premier Tim Houston announced that the province would ban all travel and activities in all forested areas starting at 4 pm local time.

“For God’s sake, stop burning. Stop throwing cigarette butts out of your car windows. Just stop,” Houston said, adding that conservation officers caught six people setting illegal fires Monday night alone.

The ban applies to all logging, mining, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, off-road vehicle driving and all commercial activities on Crown land, it said.

“We are in a very dire situation in this province and we must take whatever steps we can to protect Nova Scotia,” he told a news conference via video call from Shelburne, NS, where the province’s largest wildfire broke out. . It’s been on fire since the weekend.

“I wanted to get an idea of ​​the damage here,” the prime minister said. “It is extensive. It’s heartbreaking.

In all, 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes in southwestern Nova Scotia as the 100 square kilometer fire northwest of Barrington, NS, continued to grow on Tuesday. The wildfire was one of three to burn out of control across the province, along with the fire near Halifax and a much smaller fire near East Pubnico in the southwestern corner of the province.

Scott Tingley, forest protection manager for the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, said the fire near Barrington was proving to be a big challenge. “We have communities and homes at risk as we speak,” he said.

In the Halifax area, with south-westerly winds gusting to 30 kilometers per hour on Tuesday, concerns were that the 8-square-kilometre fire northwest of the city could retrace its original path and ignite what has not yet burned. said Steeves. .

Trees and other flammable materials in the affected subdivisions have been “cured” by the extreme heat, meaning they will ignite quickly if the fire returns, he said.

“The fuels that were not consumed the first time the fire happened are now ready to burn,” he said. “The possibility of re-burning…could create a very dangerous environment…That’s why it’s so important that people respect evacuation zones and stay out.”

Meanwhile, the extended forecast calls for hotter weather Wednesday and Thursday, with no rain until Friday night at the earliest.

As homeowners wait to learn the fate of their evacuated residences, questions are being raised about the response of firefighters and their access to fire hydrants in sprawling subdivisions.

Meldrum said Sunday’s fire was moving so fast that firefighters didn’t have time to worry about the hydrants.

“Keeping up with the fire during the events on Sunday had more to do with the speed of the fire and our ability to get resources on the flanks of that fire and less to do with the availability of water,” he said.

On Sunday, Halifax Fire District Chief Rob Hebb said his firefighters were sometimes overrun by advancing flames and had to quickly back off to ensure their safety. “It was chaotic,” Meldrum added Tuesday. “It was an extreme event.”

Firefighters were asked about the dangers inherent in building massive subdivisions that have limited road access and remain exposed to large wooded areas, something Meldrum referred to as the “urban-wildland interface.”

“We all enjoy the beauty of nature,” he said. “But as we build deeper into what used to be wooded land, many places for firefighters to get water should be considered, (and build) many routes in and out of communities.”

In September 2021, the Halifax Auditor General released an audit saying Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency management had noted that certain subdivisions were built with “inadequate water sources” for firefighting. Among the subdivisions flagged as concerning was Westwood Hills in Upper Tantallon, the same neighborhood where the wildfire started Sunday.

The report says that the fire department confirmed that a project was underway to install so-called dry hydrants in these subdivisions. These hydrants are not connected to the pressurized municipal water supply, but are instead connected to a water source, such as a lake, which requires a pump truck to remove the water.

As of Tuesday, Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency had six fire trucks, 10 tankers and 60 firefighters battling the blaze, aided by crews aboard three helicopters.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on May 30, 2023.

— With files from Keith Doucette

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